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Niklas Tiede
Niklas Tiede

Posted on • Originally published at

How to Write Documentation in the Python World!

This is part 7 of the multi-part series "The Evolution of a Script". The code of this post can be found on Github (see here).


  1. Clean and Self Descriptive Code
  2. Comments, Docstrings and Git Commit Messages
  3. README Files
  4. Sphinx Documentation

In this post I wanna talk about a few dimensions of how to document a project in the python world. This makes it easier for the user or fellow developers to understand the project as a whole or separate parts of it. We will start at the lowest level and move toward higher abstraction levels.

1. Clean and Self Descriptive Code

The lowest level of documentation is the code itself. The goal is to create readable and reusable software. This can be achieved by adhering to a few principles:

  • Meaningful, pronounceable and consistent naming of variables/functions/classes.
  • Single-responsibility principle: Each function fulfills only 1 purpose, same applies for classes/modules on a higher abstraction level.
  • Use static typing for bigger projects, enforce type checking with mypy. Dynamic languages like Python make object identification difficult.
  • Avoid reinventing the wheel and make good use of Python's standard library. A good developer uses existing code strategically to his advantage.
  • Stick to a consistent style, I like Googles styleguide for Python.
  • Is the code elegant and pleasing? Listen to your intuition, your subconscious will point to the right things.

2. Docstrings, Comments and Git Commit Messages

>>> import math
>>> math.__doc__
'This module is always available.  It provides access to the'
'mathematical functions defined by the C standard.'
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Docstrings are string literals which occur as first statement in a function, class, method or module definition. The docstrings become the __doc__ special attribute of that object. They're used to explain the general purpose of an object whereas comments explain smaller parts of the code. Comments are used to explain non-obvious portions of the code. Docstrings are surrounded by """triple quotes""" and divided into one-line or multi-line docstrings whereas comments starts with # at the beginning.

def my_function():
    """This is a docstring"""
    return None

# docstring of the function

# displays documentation of the function
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There are many docstring formats available. Most commonly used are NumPy, PyDoc and Googles docstring style. It's a good idea to stick with a format which supports the Python documentation generator Sphinx. This generates a part of your documentation automatically from your docstrings. The last section of this post will show how to generate and host documentation with Sphinx and readthedocs.

A convenient VSCode extension is the Python Docstring Generator to facilitate the creation of docstrings.

def multiply(x: int, y: int) -> int:

        x (int): [description]
        y (int): [description]

        int: [description]
    return x * y
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It detects parameters automatically and you just have to fill out the marked fields. It uses the Google style by default.

Another source of documentation is available if the project has a Git history. A good git history gives you information about the reason for each code change. You can supercharge the git capabilities of VSCode by GitLens and you will see each commit message next to the code it was committed to.

Alt Text

Furthermore, I like to use gitmoji to make the reading of my commit messages visually more appealing and force myself to commit only code changes which fall into one category of the gitmojis.

3. README Files

A nicely written README is the first document the visitor of a project will see. Here's a screenshot of THELOUNGE, an IRC client for self-hosting:

Alt Text

What a beautiful README! What does it make so good?

  • It has a visually appealing and memorable logo which is compatible with Github's light and dark theme by using a transparent .png picture.
  • A concise self-description.
  • Badges from which visualize the quality of the project.
  • Links to documentation.
  • An example, here screenshot of the application when running.
  • A list of contained features.

Often README files also contain instructions for the installation or a tutorial on how to use it. The READMEs file format is .md (markdown) or .rst (reStructuredText). Sometimes it's also a good idea to provide examples to the user for certain, common use cases. Projects with a data scientific background tend to use jupyter notebooks (.ipynb) to demonstrate the capabilities of the project. Other projects use plain python files for demonstration purposes.

4. Sphinx Documentation

For smaller projects the can be sufficient whereas projects like libraries benefit from a more extensive hosted technical documentation. I will show you here how simple it is to create your own freely hosted documentation with Sphinx, readthedocs and Github Pages!

OK, let's create some documentation! Sphinx is the tool that will help us to simplify this process.

$ pip install sphinx

$ mkdir docs
$ cd docs
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Sphinx will ask us a couple of questions:

$ sphinx-quickstart

> Separate source and build directories (y/n) [n]: y
> Project name: tinyHTTPie
> Author name(s): Niklas Tiede
> Project release []: 0.1.0
> Project language [en]: enter
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To create the documentation we have to use the make html command within the docs directory. This creates the HTML of our documentation.

$ cd ..
$ make html
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If we open the index.html file with the browser via live server we can see how it will look like. But its appearance is pretty puristic yet. Therefore we use the popular RTD theme to give it a professional look. We install the theme...

$ pip install sphinx_rtd_theme
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...and customize the file. We add the following lines:

import sphinx_rtd_theme

extensions = ["sphinx_rtd_theme",]
pygments_style = "sphinx"
version = '0.1.0'
html_theme = 'sphinx_rtd_theme'
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And render again.

$ make html
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Now it looks way better! Ok, next we wanna write some more content. The documentation should be written in the reStructuredText (.rst) syntax. Here's a nice cheat sheet. A .rst previewer in your IDE will speed up things. I've added some documentation about tinyHTTPie, see index.rst, install.rst and tutorial.rst. The last step is to publish our documentation. We have to register at and let it hook our repository.

Voilà! A nice documentation was created! I hope you see how easy it is to setup such a good-looking documentation and that documentation has so many interesting aspects we're typically not aware of! 😃

Top comments (6)

michaelcurrin profile image
Michael Currin

I like using help.

If I am in iPython I use object?, or object?? which shows the source code even.

Mostly I use the IDE to click through to the source code or hover over an object to get the docstring and arguments, so I use help less. Unless I am in the terminal only and then I have to.

niklastiede profile image
Niklas Tiede

Yeah I also like to dive into the source code with ctrl + left-click on pycharm and F12 on Vscode ^_^

victorhtorres profile image
VĂ­ctor H. Torres

Thanks for this post. My main attention was your mentioned the Python Style by Google. I'm new with this programming language and so far the PEP-8 is the official style that I've seen, but it's good to know that there is more...

miguelmj profile image

Great post! Saving it for reference :D

kalebu profile image
Jordan Kalebu

Useful resource, Love it

leslysandra profile image

"Clean and Self Descriptive Code" yes! write human-readable code!
thanks for sharing!